Social Dancing Through the Ages

Here’s a transcript of the video, in case you prefer to read…

Hello my lovelies, for those of you who don’t know me, my name is Katie Cobalt. I make videos on Lindy Hop and specifically talking about the history of our dance.

Today we are going to be looking at social dance then and now! Specifically we will be looking at The Savoy Ballroom, The Roseland Ballroom and a modern swing event, The Chase Festival, Stadthalle, the main ballroom at The Chase (at the Chase). 

Let’s start with the granddaddy of all social dancing, the Savoy. This was an absolutely massive ballroom stretching across an entire city block, on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Street in Harlem, New York and was opened on March 12, 1926.

Charles Buchanan – Savoy’s manager who co-owned it with Moe Gale (white/Jewish financier) wanted to give Harlem a “luxury ballroom to accommodate the many thousands who wished to dance in an atmosphere of tasteful refinement, rather than in the small and stuffy halls and the foul smelling, smoke laden cellar nightclubs”  “The Savoy Story,” 25th Anniversary of the Savoy Ballroom Brochure, 1951

Leon James said of the Savoy

My first impression was that I had stepped into another world. I had been to other ballrooms, but this was different – much bigger, more glamour, real class”  

Quoted in Marshall Stearn’s Jazz Dance 

According to research by Sharon Davis at Welcome to the Savoy the main balroom was 1300.88sqm and could hold up to 4,000 people according to the Savoy Story brochure. But from personal accounts it sounded more like there were 2,000 people there on an average night. 

At 1300sqm it is 2 times bigger than the main ballroom at the Chase. (at the chase) and there was dancing 7 days a week meaning that the sprung floors needed to be replaced every 3 years. 

1939, 75c entrance fee, which would be around $12.20 (14.03€) today

It was open 7 days a week and some nights even had themes!

Mondays (ladies night)+ Tuesdays

  • Before 6pm = 30c
  • 6-8pm = 60c
  • 8pm = 85c

Thursdays “Kitchen Mechanics night” – the maids and cooks had the night off, there were less people on the floor on Thursdays making it a great night to practice. 

Saturdays, Charles Buchanan would rush out and offer to pay the dancers to go in and dance for people. 

Sundays, dressed in their finest dancers would perform for onlookers and the folks downtown loved it and showered tips upon the dancers

The Savoy Ballroom itself was beautiful. When you walked in you would be struck by the shiny mahogany floor,  The interior was painted pink and the walls were mirrored. Colored lights danced on the sprung layered wood floor. Even thought we only ever see it in black and white, it was a really colourful location. 

At The Savoy you’d be likely to hear Chick Webb, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, the list goes on and on!   

They had 2 bandstands and the bands would often battle one another to see who could get the joint jumpin’ the best. Who could get the most people on the floor and who could get them to dance the hottest. 

Earl Warren, alto Sax player for Count Basie said: 

Swingin’ the blues was built to be a house breaker…to create real emotion in the audience. We began working on it when we were on the road and getting things together for a battle of jazz with Chick Webb at the Savoy. The Battle of Jazz was something to be reckoned with and we had ot have something fresh and new to bring ot the Savoy or we would falter at the finish line…At the Savoy we saved it until about halfway down the program. Chick did his thing, God Bless and then we reached into our bag and pulled out this powerhouse. When we unloaded out cannons that was the end. It was one of those nights- I’ll never forget it

The competition wasn’t limited to the bands, but the dancers would also compete with each other. Competition was huge in “the corner”, the north west corner also known as “The Cats Corner” is where all the best dancers would go to show off. 

Every serious hopper awaited the nightly “showtime”. Other dancers would create a horseshoe around the band and “ . . . only the greatest Lindy-hoppers would stay on the floor, to try to eliminate each other”

You can see what Showtime looked like in the 1992 Malcom X film. Set in the roseland Showing what “Showtime” could have looked like.   Choreographed by Otis Sallid with the help of Frankie Manning (blue suit) & Norma Miller (yellow dress) also performed in the scene. Background dancers include Dawn Hampton & Ryan Francois.

This clip was set in the Roseland ballroom, which is historically inaccurate as the Roseland was a segregated ballroom, unlike the Savoy. So let’s take a moment to talk about that shall we? 

The Roseland was located at Broadway at 51st Street in Manhattan, downtown, a bit more Ritzy. The ballroom was opened in 1919 and was also very colourful. They had a blue muslin ceiling with lights peeping through, and neon orange and pink lighting the dancefloor. They also had 2 bandstands but was a bit smaller than the Savoy, averaging 1,600 dancers per night. This included 150 to 200 hostesses were available most nights to any sober and orderly male partner willing to pay the charges (11 cents per three-minute dance in 1942).  

Roseland’s management maintained an ultra-respectable place of “refined dancing”.  Hostesses were encouraged to wear evening dresses that were cut no lower than the top of the sternum in front and the uppermost lumbar vertebrae in back.  They were forbidden to chew gum, drink alcoholic beverages or to leave the premises with patrons.

The Savoy Ballroom also had hostesses, they were called “The most beautiful women in Harlem” the hostesses would teach people to dance and were dance partners for anyone who purchased a 25 cent dance ticket.

People were far more likely to dance with family and friends. It wasn’t common to ask a stranger to dance. However, in Frankie’s book he talks about asking girls he didn’t know to dance at the Renny and The Savoy   

My favourite story from the Roseland is about the battle between Fletcher Henderson and Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra. The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra had heard about Jean Goldkette’s orchestra while touring, other musicians had warned them they were not to be trifled with. The Fletcher Henderson’s band weren’t too worried until they had to wait 45mins to go on stage as the Jean Goldkette’s orchestra kept doing encore upon encore.  Rex Stewart said:

Everything this band played prompted calls for encores from the crowd. This proved to be a most humiliating experience for us, since, after all, we were supposed to be the world’s greatest dance orchestra. And up pops this Johnn-come-lately white band from out in the sticks, cutting us. ….The facts were that we simply could not compete with Jean Goldkette’s Victor Recording Orchestra. Their arrangements were too imaginative and their rhythm too strong.”

“We learned that Jean Goldkette’s orchestra was, without any question, the greatest in the world and the first original white swing band in jazz history.” 

Jazz Masters of the Thirties by Stewart, Rex (New York : Macmillan 1972) p11-12

At the Roseland you could hear the likes of: Fletcher Henderson, Jean Goldkette Orchestra, Count Basie + Louis Armstrong (Manhattan debut) Chick Webb, Vincent Lopez, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller. 

But how does that compare to ballrooms today? 

We no longer have segregated ballrooms, there are no explicit rules barring people from entry based on their skin colour. However the majority of dancers are white europeans.

We don’t have showtime anymore but we do have jam circles. When a fast song comes on dancers form a circle and people can jump in to show what they got. 

It’s not common to have 2 bandstands anymore, but at the chase you have multiple rooms with multiple bands playing. At maximum capacity the Chase will have 1250 dancers (not including staff) 

Performance at Chase Festival by Felix Berghäll (SE) and Michael Jagger (US)

We might not be able to get Duke Ellington or Count Basie but you might hear the following at the Chase: Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five, Professor Cunningham,  Hot Sugar Band, or the IKS Big Band.

Hostesses aren’t really a thing anymore, and it’s much more common to ask people you don’t know for a dance. Just make sure everyone is happy and you know which roles everyone wants to dance, or switch it up! 

We definitely have very beautiful ballrooms but I wonder if they are colourful enough? Don’t we need more pink and orange neon lights?  

We will never truly know what it was like to dance at the Savoy or the Roseland ballroom, but we can always make sure that our dancing today is still inspired heavily by those who came before us, and pay homage to those dancers who got to dance in those fabulous ballrooms.